The Silence of the Girlsby Published 04 Sep 2018
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The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war's outcome. She was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis's people but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.
"The Silence of the Girls" Reviews
It’s been frequently observed how retellings of Greek myths have dominated literary fiction lately - from Madeline Miller “Circe” to Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” to modern retakes like “Home Fire” and “Everything Under”. You’d think with this prolific focus on the same characters and situations it’d come to feel repetitive, but I’m finding the more retellings I read the more engaged I am. It was particularly interesting coming to “The Silence of the Girls” having read “The Song of Achilles” and “House of Names” since they take different perspectives on the same cast. Pat Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a queen of Lyrnessus who is captured when Achilles attacks her city and kills her family. She becomes a trophy lover and a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon amidst their squabbling in the Trojan War. This status allows her unique access to some of the most intimate moments leading to the downfall of Troy, but she incisively recounts how painfully dehumanizing these men treat her and how her “privileged” status is in reality no more than that of a slave. It’s a refreshing reassessment of the positions of many characters associated with these tales of war who’ve traditionally been treated as peripheral and the novel’s vividly engaging storytelling kept me gripped.
Read my full review of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker on LonesomeReader
"'Silence becomes a woman.' Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying."
Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Iliad, the story of Achilles at the siege of Troy.
The epigraph to Barker's novel is what she has said in the inspiration for this book, a passage from Philip Roth's The Human Stain:
"‘You know how European literature begins?’ he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. ‘With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.’ And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. ‘“ Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled , Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.” And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’"
That girl is Briseis whose voice is entirely absent from the Iliad. Barker's aim and achievement is to give her back her voice.
Briseis was the wife of King Mynes, ruler of the Trojan city of Lyrnessus. Even there, living in luxury, she notes that her husband is blind to the tensions between her, his mother and her slave girl lover:
"Mynes seemed entirely unaware of the tension, but then in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles – or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?"
As the novel opens, when she was aged 19, the city was conquered by the Greek coalition, Mynes and all of the males were slaughtered (her father, three brothers and husband by Achilles) and the women shared among the conquerors. Briseis was given as a prize to Achilles for his bravery in the conflict.
Later in the siege of Troy, King Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, was forced to return one of his prizes, the 15 year old Chryseis, to her father, a priest of Apollo, to appease the god and stop a plague that is decimating the camp. In turn he demanded that Achilles, who had led the demands for him to return Chryseis, hand over Briseis to him. Achilles does so but then withdraws himself and his troops from the conflict, tipping the balance of forces in the Trojans favour. Achilles is only persuaded to rejoin the battle when his best friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector while wearing Achilles own armour.
Barker retells this story but in Briseis' first person words:
"I’d become something altogether more sinister: I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight."
I am writing this as someone whose own knowledge of The Iliad is fairly limited - Briseis is not a name I would have previously recognised. But that wasn't an issue reading the novel, it functions very well as a stand-alone self-contained text (with perhaps the occasional resort to Wikipedia for a who was that, or what happened next), and from others' reviews it seems to function equally well for those immersed in the original.
I also haven't read many of the obvious peers for comparison, notably Madeleine Miller's novels such as Curve, so my review is in absolute not relative terms.
Barker's telling isn't a modern rewrite but rather historical fiction. It sticks very closely to the original, only allowing herself leeway where there is more than one version (she has little time for the Achilles' heel story for example, she also has ).
And it isn't a feminist rewrite - and perhaps all the better for that. Her Briseis is a living breathing woman of her time, she knows the rules by which she is required to live, but that doesn't stop her having her own views.
The novel starts strikingly, immediately reminding us that history is written by the victors, here the Greeks not, as in Briseis case, the Trojans:
"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.
We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’."
The story takes us from the fall of Lyrnessus through to the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy, but in Barker's retelling we get less of the glory and more of the human reality of blood and guts, less of the heroic Greek warriors and more of the stories of the Trojan women, bereaved and handed out as trophies to the very men who killed their own loved ones. After Briseis is first is forced to sleep with Achilles:
"I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. That’s what he did to me. He tried me out."
As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector's body, he says:
"'I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.'
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:
'And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.'"
Briseis key aim is to restore her status as a person, not a thing to be traded as a war trophy.
Contemplating the prospect of becoming Achilles wife, she enters in to a dialogue with the reader:
"'Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?'
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything , anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
'I just don’t know how you could do that.'
Well, no, of course you don’t. You’ve never been a slave."
As her relationship with King Priam temporarily reminds others of her status:
"Automedon blinked, forced, for a moment – and I honestly think it was for the first time – to see me as a human being, somebody who had a sister – and a sister, moreover, who was King Priam’s daughter- in-law.
As she contemplates trying to return with Priam to the doomed Troy:
"I saw my sister, my brother-in-law, the warmth and safety of their home – and above and beyond all that, the great prize of freedom. Me – myself again, a person with family, friends, a role in life. A woman, not a thing. Wasn’t that a prize worth risking everything for, however short a time I might have to enjoy it?"
One challenge the author faced is that there is a practical limit to how much of the story Briseis can have witnessed. While she succeeds in inserting her into several crucial moments, and at times has her relaying indirect reports of what happened elsewhere, for around a quarter of the novel Barker resorts to replacing Briseis' first person narration with a privileged third person narration from the perspective of the male characters, particularly Achilles (or Briseis later understanding of their perspective? the narrator's identity is a little unclear).
I can understand why she has felt it necessary to do this, although it would have been a braver decision to have done without it, and allow some of the well-known drama between Achilles and Agamemnon simply not to be present on the page and merely seen by the impact on Briseis (and to the reader via their background knowledge of the story).
The third person sections do allow the novel to also present a (revisionist) character study of Achilles himself, one that present him as something of a Mummy's boy, still a child to his immortal mother the Nereid Thetis. Briseis first sees this, but without knowing what she sees, when she witnesses Achilles swimming (unusually for the time) and then seemingly speaking to the sea:
"He seemed to be arguing with the sea, arguing or pleading . . . The only word I thought I understood was ‘Mummy’ and that made no sense at all. Mummy? No, that couldn’t be right. But then he said it again: ‘Mummy, Mummy, ’like a small child crying to be picked up. It had to mean something else, but then ‘Mummy’is the same, or nearly the same, in so many different languages. Whatever it meant, I knew I shouldn’t be hearing it, but I didn’t dare move and so I crouched down and waited for it to stop."
Later a privileged third person section gives us Achilles perspective:
"He is, first and foremost, ‘the son of Peleus’– the name he’s known by throughout the army; his original, and always his most important, title. But that’s his public self. When he’s alone, and especially on those early-morning visits to the sea, he knows himself to be, inescapably, his mother’s son. She left when he was not quite seven, the age at which a boy leaves the women’s quarters and enters the world of men. Perhaps that’s why he never quite managed to make the transition, though it would astonish the men who’ve fought beside him to hear him say that. But of course he doesn’t say it. It’s a flaw, a weakness; he knows to keep it well hidden from the world. Only at night, drifting between sleep and waking, he finds himself back in the briny darkness of her womb, the long mistake of mortal life erased at last."
This theme - that each of the warriors who fought and died is ultimately a mother's son - is brought out powerfully when Briseis first gives us the long list of those slaughtered by Achilles in the assault on Troy and how he vanquished them, and then gives us their mother's memory of them, for example:
"And then –
Laogonus and Dardanus, brothers. They clung to the sides of their chariot, but Achilles hooked them out of it, as easily as picking out winkles with a pin. And then he killed them, quickly, efficiently, one with a spear thrust, the other with his sword.
And then –"
"But you see the problem, don’t you? How on earth can you feel any pity or concern confronted by this list of intolerably nameless names?
In later life, wherever I went, I always looked for the women of Troy who’d been scattered all over the Greek world. That skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master’s door, can that really be Queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had led the dancing in King Priam’s hall? Or that girl in the torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the well, can that be one of Priam’s daughters?
I met a lot of the women, many of them common women whose names you won’t have heard.
And so I can tell you that the brothers Laogonus and Dardanus weren’t just brothers, they were twins. When they were little, Dardanus’speech was so bad his own mother couldn’t understand him. ‘What’s he saying?’she’d ask his brother. ‘He says he wants a slice of bread,’Laogonus would reply. ‘You’ve got to make him talk,’ the boys' grandmother said. ‘Make him ask for it himself.’ ‘But I was busy,’ the mother told me. ‘I’d have been stood there hours if I’d listened to her.’
And Briseis realises, defiantly, that by fathering children with their Trojan women, the Greeks have accidentally ensured the survival of their culture:
"We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too."
One slightly odd note is sounded by the occasional imposition of slang speech patterns in dialogues, for example:
"‘Oooh, sorry I spoke.’"
"He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me."
"I’d survived. We-ell, in a manner of speaking I’d survived."
"‘Not like he does.’ Achilles looked up at Patroclus. ‘Oh, c’mon, when have you ever seen me drunk?’"
"‘He’s not human,’ Ajax blurted out. ‘Well of course he bloody isn’t,’ Agamemnon said. ‘His mother’s a fish.’"
If done consistently I would have less of an issue: we can't have the characters in an English language novel speaking vernacular ancient Greek, and standard British English is as good a representation as any. But the effect seems to have been rather randomly sprinkled in the text (and often in italics as if to draw attention).
But that minor issue aside, this is a strong retelling.
As the story concludes, Briseis realises that her attempt to tell her own story has to an extent failed. But Achilles is dead and her life is only just starting:
"Suppose, suppose just once, once, in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy . . .? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times?
One thing I do know : they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.
No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were. His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.
Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin."
Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC. 3.5 stars. Reduced to 3 on later reflection as the novel's flaws have remained with me as much as it's strengths.
It's so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that's partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker's novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.
The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author's unique slant on the narrative and feel that they're contributing something new to the story, otherwise what's the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer's musings on fate and free will and grief and glory - in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless - are all echoed in Briseis' narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she's narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she's narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.
I also felt these were some of the best depictions I've ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles' brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus' ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliad into Barker's story, in a way that I haven't seen achieved by any other retelling I've read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.
My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters' motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into 'telling rather than showing' territory, so I really didn't mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles's actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren't reading Achilles's thoughts, but rather, Briseis' interpretation of Achilles's thoughts.... but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it's clear that we're supposed to be in Achilles' head, but rather unclear why we've switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.
But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It's subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It's definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls - though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don't think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker's novel - it's a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.
Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
Pat Barker continues on the themes of war, providing a brutally visceral portrait in this telling of The Iliad, adding the voices of the women missing from the original. When her family is wiped out by the forces of Agamemnon, Briseis becomes the premier warrior, Achilles, trophy prize. Barker provides complex and nuanced characterisation, of the women as slaves, prostitutes, nurses, whilst giving us an Achilles that is less a hero, more a troubled man with his own demons. We get the clash of male egos when Agamemnon demands Briseis for himself after losing his woman. A bitter Achilles agrees but refuses point blank to fight for him any more. As we are immersed in the daily horrors of war, Achilles's pain and despair overflows after a personal tragedy but still has him able to feel compassion towards the grief of Priam. The Silence of the Girls is a stellar novel, beautifully written, where the stories of the women are told, made authentic with their opinions and views, amidst the never ending cost of war they are forced to endure. Highly recommended!
"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.
We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’."
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of Homer's The Iliad that brings in the stories of the women and girls who were, essentially, collateral damage in the Trojan War.
Briseis is the narrator. When Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks, she becomes a war prize for Achilles but quickly gets caught up in a dispute between him and Agamemnon. We experience life in the Greek's camp through her eyes and see all the injustices that take place. Barker's frank, gritty portrayal of a place swamped in stinking rats, alcohol and male ego is especially good in the first half of the book.
Whether intentional or not, the title calls to mind Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs and her story about helplessly sitting by while the lambs went to the slaughter. It's an interesting parallel. Briseis recounts the atrocities of war and how they affect women, unable to help the women around her as they are abused, raped and traded like chattel. It's a dark story, to be sure, and I found it very emotional and effective for just less than half of the book.
She was like a windflower trembling on its slender stem, so fragile you feel it can’t possibly survive the blasts that shake it, though it survives them all.
I wanted to give it a higher rating, but I can't shake the impression that The Silence of the Girls offers a fascinating premise and then kinda doesn't know what to do with it. The strong start becomes something tedious and repetitive once we settle into camp life, and especially so when the author introduces Achilles' perspective in the second half. It's disappointing when books are strong in concept but quickly wither out in execution.
I'm probably underselling it, though. 3 stars is not really a negative rating and there's some excellent writing here. Achilles is a complex character, portrayed both through his own perspective and through Briseis's. His maternal abandonment issues, plus his relationship with Patroclus, are told well. It is strange perhaps that in a book called The Silence of the Girls, Achilles is still the most interesting and multilayered character. Or maybe that's the point- who knows?
Barker's writing is mostly smart and witty, powered both by metaphor and some of Briseis's sardonic asides, but there are a few jarring anachronisms. Her use of British slang like "knockers" for breasts feels weird and out of place no matter how much the author assures us it was intentional.
It's really difficult to talk about this retelling of Greek mythology without bringing in Madeline Miller as a comparison. Well, I liked this one better than Miller's The Song of Achilles but less than her Circe. As far as books that give voices to the lesser-known women of ancient myths go, Circe still comes out on top for me.
CW: Rape (on-page); war; graphic violence; one incidence of self-harm.
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